What has changed or stayed the same in communication? When Mark Dailey, Director at Madano and communications veteran of more than three and a half decades, revealed that he had written a book about effective communication in a business environment and had it published by Routledge, we felt it was a great opportunity to sit down with him and pick his brains about the fundamentals of good communication through the decades. What has changed over time? And, more importantly, what has stayed the same?
Responding to those points, Mark was characteristically direct: “Good communication hasn’t really changed throughout the decades, although we’re probably better at decoding and describing it now.”
For Mark, any communicator has to cover three bases if their messages are to be successful. First, they need to make sure that what they’re saying is relevant to the intended audience. Second, they must be careful that what they’re saying doesn’t take too long or they risk losing their audience’s attention. (“No one’s ever asked me if I’ve got one more slide to show them,” he joked.) And finally, whatever they’re saying has to be engaging or interesting – it needs to grab the audience in some way.
The importance of storytelling and meaning
“That’s where storytelling comes in,” he explained. “Storytelling is in our DNA. It’s our favourite way of receiving information and it’s also the most effective, because stories are easy to remember and are laden with the two things people need the most: a little bit of emotion and a lot of meaning.”
The importance of meaning was a theme running through most of our conversation. Thanks to digital technology’s ability to provide access to the internet via devices that fit in our pocket, there’s never been more information available to us 24/7. But, at the same time, we’re increasingly suffering from a paucity of meaning. Why is that? Mark thinks part of the answer lies in the lack of visual, human clues offered by modern communication channels.
“People are animals,” he said, “and they react to communications in a visceral way. They instinctively look for clues like body language, tone and facial expressions when someone is talking to them, and those things are often missing in an online setting.
But even in real life, presenters often feel the content is most important and the non-verbal is less important. But initially, the audience really wants to see confidence from the speaker – no one likes a car crash – as well as authenticity, passion and sincerity. Then they might be prepared to listen to what’s being said.”
This encapsulates another of Mark’s principles of good communication: start with the audience and what’s relevant to them, then focus on how to connect with them and win their engagement. Only then worry about constructing content. He believes that our ability to absorb information is now so shattered and at a premium that the onus is on communicators to establish the three key messages (not 17!) that they want to convey, and a simple storyline or narrative, and then stick to them.
It’s not as simple as saying that people’s inability to concentrate on a speaker’s messages is because we’re all suffering from shorter attention spans, as anyone who’s watched an entire season of their favourite boxset in a single viewing can confirm. Instead, it’s recognising that, in a business context, short of getting up and walking out of the room, we don’t have a choice about whether and how we’re being communicated with – we simply feel that we’re being communicated at. If the speaker doesn’t win us over in the first two-to-five minutes and gain the right to speak to us, the only way we can express our lack of engagement is by withdrawing our attention.
“Effective communication is a lot closer to sales than we like to think it is,” said Mark. “Most people don’t like being sold to, but the analogy works. The best salespeople do two things: they either make the benefit to you so blindly obvious from the outset that you’re compelled to listen to them, or they begin by telling you a story, often about themselves, which demonstrates vulnerability and authenticity. This allows people to empathise, make the connection and then apply it to their own situation. It’s a delicate balancing act between showing both confidence and an element of vulnerability.
“We process content in two very different ways. Yes, we want the rational side – the three key messages and the information – but information needs to be transformed into emotion and meaning in order for us to digest and reflect on it, so that it can then be committed to long-term memory.”
Because we’re bombarded by messages on a daily basis, successful communicators understand that their communication style needs to be personal and empathetic if it is to achieve cut-through. It’s slightly counterintuitive, but rational, factually correct messages simply aren’t enough; communicators have to be brave enough to show emotion if they are to establish a meaningful connection with their audience.
“That’s why we need a reset on empathetic communications,” Mark explained. “People are often reluctant to show emotion or talk about meaning at work – they’re the two great taboos – but those are the two key things that people want the most. This is the central conundrum of modern communications.”
So, what overriding piece of advice would Mark offer to modern communicators, be they fledgling or seasoned?
“Thanks to the massive shift towards the digital realm that has taken place in the last two years,” he stated, “people now want you to be direct, because they don’t want to stay on screen any longer than necessary, and professional, so that the process runs smoothly.
“Above all, they’re craving authenticity even more than usual, as they don’t expect engagement in virtual land.”
Mark specialises in corporate and strategic communications, media training, facilitation and transformation/crisis communications. To find out more about how Mark and the Madano team could help you, please get in touch at [email protected].